When you’re a disabled person like me, there are certain things that able-bodied people always say to you. I’ve only been a wheelchair-user for six years and I already feel as if I’ve heard it all thousands of times before. Because I’m black, I don’t only hear the things that disabled people frequently do, I also hear things that black people often do too. Here are all of the things that I constantly hear from able-bodied people, as well as the things that they frequently do when they see me:
Twelve Things Able-Bodied People Always Say
1. Unoriginal Jokes
Unoriginal jokes are things that you will probably hear a lot as a wheelchair-user. The type of joke seems to depend on where you are: I often hear American wheelchair-users talk about people saying: “I hope you got a licence for that thing!” to them in a jokey manner when they see them rolling past. From most Brits, I hear them getting annoyed by people constantly saying: “Ooh, I hope you don’t run me over!” also in a light-hearted way. I know that people who say things like this don’t mean any harm so I don’t take offence to it, just know that if you’re planning on saying something like this to a wheelchair-user – they’ve most likely heard it hundreds of times before.
2. Express Pity
Sometimes people approach me and say that they feel sorry for me. They must be people who have been told that living with a disability instantly means that your life is miserable, but I’m usually having a great day and am extremely enjoying going out for a walk in my wheelchair when people come up to me and express pity. Once, an old man came up to me and said that he wished that I wasn’t the way that I was but there was nothing that could be done about it. Did he seriously think that was news to me? And he needn’t have wished that – I’m perfectly fine with the way that I am.
3. They Talk About Me to My Face
This happens a lot. Strangers occasionally speak about me in Dutch to each other while I’m well-within earshot, probably because I’m black and they assume that I can’t understand Dutch. I often hear: “Oh, there goes that girl again.” “Yes, I’ve seen her around here.” “Where do you think that she’s going?” “What do you suppose happened to her?” Sometimes it amuses me, sometimes it annoys me. I always feel like turning around and saying: “Why don’t you just ask me?” in Dutch to surprise them but I’m too shy to. It doesn’t matter which language it’s in though, I’ve heard wheelchair-users being frustrated by people talking about them to their faces all over the world.
4. “You Should Get a…”
From adults, I hear them suggesting fun attachments that I should add to my wheelchair (as a joke). They say things like: “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could attach rocket boosters to the back?” “You should add a built-in cup-holder to your wheelchair!” or “It would be so cool if you could attach an umbrella to your chair.” I hear this one a lot, especially from all of the teachers at school. It’s probably the unoriginal joke that I hear the most, it’s just funny how it’s always presented as a genius, innovative idea. I remember when my school received their first disabled teacher. One of the first things that were said to him was: “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could attach a cup holder to your chair?” All that I could do was silently wish him good luck.
5. They Ask Me If I Need Help
This one is completely fine. I’d rather that people ask me if I need help with something instead of just taking whatever I’m doing from me and finishing it. I mentioned before on my blog how, a few years ago, I had to wrestle my lunchbox from a woman who was trying to grab it and open it for me. A simple: “Do you need help with that?” would have sufficed. Sometimes it’s strange when I’m doing ordinary things like reading on a bench or looking at the sky and people come up to me and ask if I need help – but I’m not bothered by it, I know that it’s only people trying to be polite. And asking for help is often how people start conversations with me. Maybe it’s just an easier way for them to approach someone like me? Who knows.
6. “What Happened?”
This question is inevitable for almost all physically disabled people. I have no problems with answering, I just feel as if I’m letting people down when I say that I was simply born this way. It feels as if most of them are expecting a long backstory about some huge and traumatic event. They seem to ‘enjoy’ my backstory more when I tell them that I used to be able-bodied but my condition gradually worsened. I think that disability is easier for people to swallow when they know that the disabled person used to be like them before they turned out the way that they are – I don’t know why, maybe because they feel that it’s something that could’ve happened to them that way.
7. They Call Me a Hero
Complete random strangers have approached me and called me strong, a hero, or their inspiration. But they don’t even know me! And most of the time I’m simply reading or thinking on a bench – not very inspiring activities. I explained in my post inspiration porn vs. actual inspiring people (https://thewheelchairteen.home.blog/2020/02/03/inspiration-porn-vs-actual-inspiring-people/) why this is problematic, but to paraphrase myself: “It was probably because they had grown up being taught that having a disability was terrible and therefore simply waking up in the morning and going about your daily life with one makes you extraordinary; that to be disabled and merely exist made you a hero of epic proportions. And for some rare cases, I’m sure that this is true, but you’d be surprised how many of us are living the same life as everyone else only with some extra tools to help us out where our bodies may differ from others.”
8. They Sing ‘Ridin’
It sounds crazy, but quite frequently I hear people singing the song Ridin’ at me. It’s so weird – all I do is roll down the street and complete strangers start singing it to me. For those of you who don’t know, Ridin’ is a Gangsta Rap song released in 2006 by Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone. Until I looked it up for this blog post, I’d never actually heard the track. All I knew is that it had the words: “they see me rollin’, they hating,” in it, and that’s what people (usually young people) sing when I pass them.
I once passed a bunch of (drunk-looking) teenage boys who were hanging out in a children’s park. As I passed them, they all sang the song at the top of their lungs at me. Whether it was to cheer me on or show me some kind of solidarity, I don’t know. I was only fifteen at the time so I simply kept my head down and hurried along on my way just to be on the safe side.
9. They Ask Where I’m From
The thing that strangers say to me the most is: “Where are you from?” Most of the time, they assume: I’ve heard everything from Congo to Ethiopia and Suriname. When I tell them where I’m actually from (England) they don’t believe me. They ask: “But where were you born?” “Where are your parents from?” “What country’s on your passport?” and sometimes even “But then how comes your black?” Because I’m in the Netherlands, I think that it’s harder for people over here to understand that there are black people in England. But if you’ve ever been there, you know that a black person is not an uncommon thing to see in London. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of living in a predominantly white country.
10. They Don’t Address Me
Able-bodied people are occasionally made uncomfortable by me. They therefore address whoever’s with me instead of speaking to me, even if they’re talking about me. My mother has to constantly remind staff at museums or airports to address me directly when they ask things like: “Can she walk down stairs?” I like to push myself in my wheelchair when I go outside because I enjoy the exercise. While I was taking a walk with one of my friends, someone once stopped biking to approach us and tell my friend off: “Can’t you see that she’s struggling? Pay attention and push her!” It put my friend in a really awkward situation since she was shy and bad with confrontations. I don’t think that it occurred to that person that I had a voice of my own to speak up with if I did need help. The sad truth is that people sometimes disregard my voice and my opinions because of who I am.
11. “Can I Touch Your Hair?”
This is another side-effect of living in the Netherlands – quite a few people have never seen natural black hair before. For the first time two years ago, I decided to go around for a few months with my natural afro instead of plaiting my hair. The result was lots of people asking to touch my hair, or simply touching it without my permission. Although, if you asked my opinion, I largely prefer being made to feel different for being black instead of for being disabled – but neither are pleasant. It’s not just my hair: I often get mistaken for a man. People biking past yell out: “Hoi, meneer!” (Dutch for: Hello Mister). My friends at school used to call me Caveman because of my big nose and apparently man-ish looking face. Or they called me Medusa because of my plaits (braids). Once again, I’d rather be called Caveman than deformed or a cripple.
12. Parents Tell Their Children To Stay Away
Children are naturally curious so they often try to approach me and ask me questions. I love answering questions from children because it helps to educate them about disabled people. However, parents get embarrassed by their children asking questions – which I understand. Most of them apologise profusely, but I always tell them that I don’t mind it. Some parents even pull their children away from me if their kids start walking in my direction, which upsets me.
One day, I was rolling around the park and a child asked what I was doing. Their parent replied that I was going on a walk because it was healthy to be around nature. It was a good guess, but that wasn’t actually what I was doing there. In that case, it would have been better to ask me instead of just guessing. I’ve also heard misinformation happen in this way: Children ask questions about my condition and parents guess and tell their children things that aren’t true like I was in an accident, for example. To avoid presenting incorrect guesses to your children as facts, my advice to all parents would be to ask the disabled person themselves. They may not always be willing to share but you shouldn’t be scared to ask, we’re not scary monsters – we won’t bite. 😊
What Able-Bodied People Do When They See Me
What people do when they see me is easy, they either:
- Look away because I make them uncomfortable
- Point (I hate when this happens, it makes me feel like an animal in a zoo)
- Run away scared (little children are sometimes afraid of my electric wheelchair and run away from me crying which makes me feel terrible. This can also happen with fairly old children, around ten is the oldest that I’ve seen scared of me)
- Smile (Yay!)
- Stare (I used to feel extremely self-conscious. When you’re a teenager, everyone experiences things like spots and bad hair days – but they would be awful for me because I knew that, no matter what, people would be looking; they simply always are. Staring is usually bearable, unless I’m having a horrible day and I’m visibly fed up and I just can’t take the eyes anymore)
That’s it from me! I didn’t tell you these things to sound critical of the people that I interact with – I just wanted to put you in my shoes by showing you the typical things that I hear while I’m out and about. If you feel uncomfortable around disabled people and don’t know what to say to them, I recommend reading my short Talking to Someone in a Wheelchair Dos and Don’ts post for some tips to help you relax when you address wheelchair-users: https://thewheelchairteen.home.blog/2019/12/02/talking-to-someone-in-a-wheelchair-dos-and-donts/
I hope you enjoyed this post and that you learned something from it! If you’re disabled – I hope that you were able to relate. If you have any questions for me, don’t hesitate to ask them. See you next week!
Image Citations: https://www.dreamstime.com/illustration/eyes-rolling.html, https://www.monsterscooterparts.com/mobility/mobility-categories/mo1/mobility-scooter-canopy/universal-umbrella-holder.html, https://www.pinterest.com/pin/107171666105969371/, https://nl.pinterest.com/pin/292804413271149646/?nic_v2=1a56815Qb, https://www.abc.net.au/life/helping-your-kids-to-not-be-awkward-around-disability/11739256